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Water district sweetens turf rebate program

The Metropolitan Water District's board of directors last week poured an additional $350 million into its turf-removal rebate program and enacted a last-minute change that could help homeowners in Burbank who want to expand previously completed turf-replacement projects.

Through Burbank Water and Power's "Go Native" program, residents who remove water-thirsty live turf and replace it with drought-tolerant landscaping qualify for up to $3 per square foot in rebates. Two of those dollars come from MWD, which sells imported water to the utility in Burbank and in more than two-dozen other Southern California communities.

Prior to the changes, residents could only qualify for the MWD rebate once. That meant that homeowners who had used it to replace turf in part of their yards were ineligible for the incentive if they chose to go further at a later date.

The board of directors eliminated that one-time restriction and instead enacted a cumulative cap of $6,000 per residential property — meaning 3,000 square feet of turf removed — even if done in stages. That means Burbank residents can get a total of up to $9,000 in rebates by combining it with the city's program.

Jeanette Meyer, marketing manager at Burbank Water and Power, said some residents had initially replaced backyards with artificial turf after the City Council made those projects eligible for the "Go Native" rebates last July. They contacted her about the rebate again after council members approved artificial-turf frontyards for the rebates in November.

The customers were able to get $1-per-square-foot rebates from the city's utility for those later projects, but they were upset that they couldn't qualify for the additional $2-per-square-foot rebate because of the MWD rules, she said. Meyer said she planned to contact those affected and let them know to apply for the additional rebate.

However, Meyer also noted that increased demand means the funds available for rebates will run out "that much faster," and it's not clear whether the program will continue at the same funding levels in coming years.

Throughout the areas served by MWD, which includes most of Southern California, weekly requests for rebates have nearly quintupled since Gov. Jerry Brown ordered urban water users to cut their usage by 25%.

MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said the expansion of the turf-replacement rebate program will have immediate impacts — MWD staff projects up to 80,000 acre feet of water savings in the first year — and long-term benefits as those savings accumulate over the next 10 years.

The rebates have the potential to transform the water market in Southern California, some board members argued, but Larry McKenney, who represents the Municipal Water District of Orange County, cautioned that it could also hamper that goal if it ends up "creating free riders" who delay uprooting their grass until incentives are provided.

"I would encourage the board to be very careful in its rhetoric and not imply that we're intending to have additional funding for turf removal as a program in the future," he said.

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Chad Garland, chad.garland@latimes.com

Twitter: @chadgarland

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